Middle East envoy Blair prepares Gaza visit: sources

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Middle East envoy Tony Blair is preparing to travel to the Gaza Strip this week in what would be the highest-level visit by a Western official since Hamas took control a year ago, Palestinian and Western officials said.

The visit would come nearly a month after an Egyptian-brokered truce curbed cross-border fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in the coastal enclave.

Blair’s office on Monday declined to comment on the former British prime minister’s travel plans.

Palestinian and Western officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, cautioned that the trip could be delayed due to security considerations.

Aside from U.N. officials, few Western dignitaries have visited the Gaza Strip since Hamas Islamists routed forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and seized control in June 2007.

The Quartet of international powers — the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations — appointed Blair to the envoy post a year ago with an economic focus to bolster the chances of a peace deal this year.

Most of the economic projects promoted by Blair have been earmarked for the occupied West Bank, where Abbas and his Western-backed government hold sway.

But Blair included in his economic package a major sewage project for the northern Gaza Strip.

Israel tightened its cordon of the Gaza Strip after Hamas’s takeover, and it took months of lobbying by Blair and other Western officials to get Israeli permission to bring in pipes, wire and other equipment for the North Gaza Sewage Treatment Works project.

Under the Egyptian-brokered truce, Israel has started to ease its cordon, allowing in more humanitarian supplies as well as some construction materials, like cement.

Gazans view the sewage project as urgent: last year, five people drowned in a wave of raw sewage from a plant in northern Gaza.

Israel had argued that equipment needed to repair the sewage system could be used to make rockets that are fired into Israel.

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